- Wilde’s Prision Writings
FROM ITS TITLE ALONE, The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde displays the keen editorial and scholarly project that Nicholas Frankel assembles in this new collection. Although any scholar of Wilde could explain the myriad ways in which prison changed the author, this is the first detailed scholarly collection of Wilde to frame his writing production in relation to his incarceration. The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde joins Frankel’s recent and growing scholarship on Wilde, including Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years (2017), The Annotated Importance of Being Earnest (2015), and The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition (2011). Yet unlike his other annotated editions of Wilde, both of which focused on a single [End Page 423] literary work, this collection invites readers to confront the experience of Wilde’s incarceration—the physical and spiritual tolls it took—in relation to the written work he produced.
In court, Wilde was the center of public spectacle, being covered widely in the press. Newspapers included accounts of him on the witness stand, testimony of boys claiming to have had sexual liaisons with him, and excerpts of Wilde’s writings suggestive of indecent conduct. Frankel does not include such material and only briefly reviews the trial in his introduction. Instead, he begins by detailing the brutal conditions under which he suffered. While in prison, Wilde was held to solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day and often subject to perform hard labor during the two years of his incarceration from May 1895 to May 1897. The effects lasted the rest of his life and influenced his literary production.
The two principle literary works associated with Wilde’s incarceration, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis, are the collection’s longest and most significant. Alongside these works, Frankel places three other lesser-known pieces: an 1896 letter of appeal to the Home Secretary, which begins the collection; an 1897 letter to the Daily Chronicle between De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol; and an 1898 letter to the Daily Chronicle, which concludes the collection. While Frankel notes that these are set chronologically in order of composition, the effect of this editorial selection and ordering is more than just historical. The shorter letters frame and enclose the larger, better-known texts. They represent not just historical context but the discourses and debates about incarceration, inscribing and enclosing Wilde’s literary works in the collection. These shorter letters reveal the agonizing effects of prison upon Wilde’s spirit in his public and official correspondence, adding depth to the better-known literary representations of his imprisonment without overwhelming the reader.
In these shorter letters, one cannot but help to think about Wilde’s writing in terms of modern incarceration. As Frankel notes in his introduction, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which included the crime of “gross indecency” for which Wilde was convicted, was not fully repealed until 2003. Nicknamed “blackmailer’s charter,” this law, according to Frankel, consisted of vague language and a low burden of proof, making it quite easy for exploiting vulnerable men. Even more [End Page 424] recently in 2017, the British government finally issued formal pardons for those men prosecuted under this law.
Indeed, there are significant moments where the cruel effects of this law and the penal system display themselves in Wilde’s lesser-known writings. Wilde’s July 1896 “Clemency Petition to the Home Secretary” shows him begging for leniency in his treatment, invoking the potential madness caused by what the law deemed his gross indecency. Wilde wrote that he
is conscious that his mind, shut out artificially from all rational and intellectual interests, does nothing, and can do nothing, but brood on those forms of sexual perversity, those loathsome modes of erotomania, that have brought him from a high place and noble distinction to the convict’s cell and the common gaol…. The mind is forced to think, and when it is deprived of the conditions necessary for healthy intellectual activity, such...